Japan to give grudgingly to its old foe: Tokyo sceptical about helping a country with which it is still formally at war

'YELTSIN, starve to death] Japan has no more money' ran the headline in the 1 April edition of Shukan Bunshun, one of Japan's more serious weekly news magazines. The finance and foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations meet in Tokyo today and tomorrow to discuss a new aid package to Russia.

The meeting was convened in a hurry to demonstrate the G7's solid support for President Boris Yeltsin's reform programme in advance of a referendum on the issue in Russia on 25 April. But, despite a semblance of unity, the second-richest G7 member, Japan, is deeply sceptical about helping a country with which it is still formally at war. Westerners have trouble understanding the depths of Japanese animosity towards Russia. Sometimes it shows itself in unexpected ways.

In a recent conversation a middle-aged and normally mild-mannered Japanese lady put it this way: 'The Russians are sneaky. Clinton told Yeltsin that he could not trust the Japanese, but that is just what we believe about the Russians. You can never trust them, Communist or not.' (President Clinton caused a minor stir during his summit with President Yeltsin in Vancouver when he told the Russian that when the Japanese say 'yes', they often mean 'no'.) The Japanese lady did not actively wish starvation on the Russians, but she did not think her government should be wasting money on a bankrupt former Communist state.

At the last minute, Japan will cough up the money - dollars 1.8bn (pounds 1.2bn) out of a total package expected to be at least dollars 30bn, according to Japanese government sources. But the contribution will be made grudgingly, as Tokyo feels little of the urgency of the US or European nations to keep Mr Yeltsin afloat in the Moscow power struggle, and fears any money given would be wasted.

Japan has a blind spot over Russia. There is little enthusiasm in Japan for what the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, described yesterday on his arrival in Tokyo as the 'noble mission . . . to support the historic struggle of the Russian people to build a free society'.

'Our aim is assistance that will have a powerful impact,' Mr Christopher said. 'Assistance that would be felt directly by the Russian people, assistance that will build and preserve a new Russia.'

Geographically Japan is half a world away from Moscow and the main population centres of the disintegrating Russian Federation. Diplomatically the distance between the two countries is almost as large, and the tone of relations between Moscow and Tokyo often sounds more like the verbal taunts of rival British soccer supporters than the measured statements of sovereign states.

The unusually provocative article in the Shukan Bunshun went through all the historical disputes, diplomatic betrayals and unpaid debts between Russia and Japan since the end of the nineteenth century, culminating in Russia's capture of the Kurile Islands to the north of Japan in the closing days of the Second World War. These islands are still occupied by Russians, and the dispute has prevented Tokyo signing a peace settlement with Moscow. Japanese diplomats have no qualms in describing Japan as a 'victim of Russian aggression' during the last war, conveniently ignoring Japan's own record of aggression in Asia.

Until recently the Kurile dispute has meant that Japan refused to give any aid to Russia, although international pressure has forced Tokyo to back down from that position. But, said the magazine, this was foolish: giving money to Russia is like 'throwing cash into the ditch'.

Swallowing his pride, Kabun Muto, the new Foreign Minister, yesterday officially announced that the 'linkage' between the territorial dispute and financial aid to Russia had been suspended. 'Bilateral problems are stictly bilateral problems,' said Mr Muto, adding that if Russia's reforms failed 'it would definitely not be a plus for world peace'.

However, Mr Muto will have separate talks on the Kuriles issue with the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, who will be in Tokyo for the G7 meeting.

Part of Japan's aid package to Russia will be earmarked for helping to dispose of the country's radioactive waste. Tokyo was infuriated to discover last month that the Russian military had been regularly dumping nuclear waste into the Sea of Japan.

In a small indication that Russia is prepared to be more conciliatory towards Japan in exchange for Japanese financial assistance, Mr Yeltsin has said he would like to visit Tokyo next month. In September Mr Yeltsin cancelled a planned visit to Tokyo with just four days' notice, which at the time put yet another pin into the much-punctured voodoo doll of Russo-Japanese relations.

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